Tefillin of the heart

Tefillin — phylacteries — have become a source of contention in the Modern Orthodox world. Female high-schoolers, on both coasts of the United States, are seeking rabbinic permission to adorn tefillin publicly while participating in morning prayers. For centuries, tefillin, alongside Talmud studies, have been symbols of the male domain and practice. While Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik assisted in reclaiming Talmud studies for women, other public rituals, especially those reflected in all elements of public prayer, are continuously challenging the parameters of this community’s self-perception and definition. Partnership praying congregations and the ordination of women are two of the storms that have been weathered.  

I, myself, have been struggling with and self-defined by my relationship to this “Time-Bound Torah Imperative That Woman Are Exempt From” for the last 25 years. Somehow, more than other commandments that fall under this category that I have chosen over the years to obligate myself to and observe (such as sitting in a sukkah or owning my own set of the Four Species), tefillin seem to have a magnetic field around them that emotionally and intuitively keeps women away. Even when counseling Conservative female rabbinical students, I have found the emotional challenge of tefillin as carrying the weight of centuries of male dominance to be overwhelming.

My first personal draw to actually adorn tefillin awakened in my early 20s, while learning a prayer in Rebbe Nachman of Breslav’s book of prayers, “Likutei Tefillot.” Rebbe Nachman warns us of the dangers in surpassing the boundaries of our mind while studying and sitting in contemplation. He calls upon the tefillin to function as a visceral reminder every morning of what it means to bind your Keter (Divine Crown) and Da’at (Divine Knowledge) to God, when sensing the knot of the head tefilah (phylactery) on the stem of your brain and the phylactery itself resting on the top of your forehead. I told myself that when I would get married I would cover my hair, and my head covering would be my reminder. That made sense to me at 25 years of age. Orthodox men have tefillin, and Orthodox women have head coverings to function similarly. 

But then I found myself at 29 and still single and having to teach. I could not wait any longer to become the teacher I was meant to be. So I tell myself to always collect my hair when teaching; that I, too, need protection when teaching. My mind and imagination need to be confined to what is “mine” in the higher realms, as Rebbe Nachman explained. It is for this reason that, as I walk in the world as Reb Mimi, a female Orthodox rabbi, my hair is always covered when I teach in public, even though still single (and therefore not obligated to cover my hair), and because I still don’t adorn tefillin. No different than my male colleagues who teach alongside me, I, too, need this reminder.

Twice I have purchased tefillin. The first time was in Geula, one of the more ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, for my nephew, Ziv, weeks before his bar mitzvah. There was no expectation that he would use them, as he didn’t live his life as an observant person, but it was a given that bar mitzvah boys need to own a pair of tefillin. As the rabbi-aunt, it seemed simple that I would purchase them with him. We enter the store as always dressed — I’m with sleeves below my elbows; Ziv is in a tank top, short-shorts and spiked hair, with a ton of gel to keep the spikes standing as straight as I stand when praying in the morning. Although it was clear to the storekeeper that Ziv wouldn’t be using them often, he nonetheless smiled while commenting: “I’m not so sure that the gel is good for the leather.” I paid, wondering what would happen to those tefillin, and at times I still do.

The second pair I purchased was for a young man I had met while teaching in the greater community, here in Los Angeles. He came to my home to share with me the murmurs of his heart. I asked him when was the last time that he prayed. He said, “I don’t have tefillin.” I was caught off guard by his answer, as he was not living a halachically observant life. I responded, “I didn’t ask you if you recited the morning prayers, I asked if you prayed to God, if you talked to God.” He insisted, “You can’t pray if you don’t have tefillin.” His identity as a praying person was bound to his nonexistent tefillin and memories of being a Chasidic young man earlier in his life, while currently living as an observant-free person, astounded me. That morning, what I needed for him was to be in conversation with God, and if tefillin was his reason for not being in dialogue with God, then that was the easiest problem to solve. “Great! It’s a 10-minute walk to the closest tefillin store,” was my response. I entered the store, pondering, “What does it mean that I can earn the money to purchase them by virtue of teaching Torah; that half of my community can’t live without them, yet they aren’t accessible to me?”

I have been questioning and longing when contemplating tefillin. I live a life that is halachically, spiritually and emotionally bound to God, but what does it mean to be physically bound to God? How does this daily experience alter one’s connection, devotion and commitment to our Creator? When you live with something that is present daily as part of your obligatory life, I could see how one could wonder what it is like to not be obligated to adorn tefillin. But, for me, it is a haunting and daunting question that meets me every morning and every Shabbat. I ask myself, “What does it mean that there is a D’Oraita (Torah) imperative commandment that 50 percent of my community observes daily that I am alien to?”

You see, this isn’t a theoretical question about “women and tefillin”; it isn’t only a halachic question about “women and tefillin.” It is a question that challenges me daily as I stand in God’s presence. 

The truth is that I do own a pair of tefillin. I believe a Jewish home needs to have tefillin in it, and I can’t be a rabbi without tefillin to lend someone in need. They travel with me when going home to Jerusalem to be with my family. They sit in a special tefillin bag that I was gifted not long ago. They rest on a shelf next to where I pray every morning, staring at me, conversing from a distance. I mumble words similar to  Rav Rechumei’s wife, in the Talmud, as she waits for him to come home once a year from his learning with Rav in Mechoza: “Hashta atei, hashta atei” — “now he’s coming, now he’s coming.” I say to them, “Maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow.” Rav Rechumei’s wife and I share a longing for what / who we think we are wed to, what is ours by right. We share a tear that comes from the pain of the distancing and rejection as a woman. Rav Rechumei never made it home, but my “tomorrow” may still come. How long will it be till I can no longer long for my tefillin, fearing the intimacy of union with the Divine as wrapping them on my head and arm? How long will it be and what will it take till I hear myself saying the two blessings recited when laying tefillin? Till I hear myself saying in the presence of God, “V’erastikh li l’olam … v’ya’daat et HaShem” — “I will betroth you to Me forever, and I will betroth you to Me in righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy. I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you shall know God”?

Reb Mimi Feigelson and Rabbi Marc D. Angel will discuss “The Battle for the Soul of Judaism: How Open Can Orthodoxy Be?” at Sinai Temple on March 10, 7:30 to 9 p.m. To RSVP or for more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.